14 April 2012


Library Tower Steps in front of the Los Angeles Public Library; late and early 20th century

Cities that are more then a generation old take on the characteristics of layering, exhibiting the slices of life and its physical trappings of their years. New buildings are constructed next to old, renovations are made on top of existing structures needing repair, and there is the introduction of new uses in structures to take the place of the obsolete. Then there are the artifacts around the buildings, the pavement, the trees, the street lighting, the places to sit, the signs, and everything else, some of it new, and some of it still standing through many years despite everything else around it that has been replaced; layers standing through time and layers changing with time. With every change there is the introduction of practical requirements of new regulations, and the different artistic inclinations of each new generation making new layers. Over time, the physical elements, the constructed fabric of cities, are finessed, neglected, discovered, destroyed, and repaired. Pieces of cities are added onto and altered almost by accident, or they are manipulated in a deliberately crass way to make the entrepreneur a few bucks. Yet sometimes the changes are crafted with a great deal of love and skill. And although these changes can take place all at once, mostly they occur over time, and then over and over again.

A natural design inclination and a popular conception is to make all the design elements that compose a part of a city or a street seem like they were conceived and built at one time and particular architectural style. The uniformity and the comfort of a common design language makes for what we think of as an understandable and attractive place to be. A major street with Romanesque facades is thought to need another Romanesque facade when it comes time for an additional or a replacement structure. The methods of construction and the ways of living may have changed, but the thought is to make a place where one era fades into the next. New builders need to try mightily to make the new buildings mimic these archaic building methods and proportions.

In the opposite camp is another group, determined to ignore what had gone on before, desiring to forge ahead and do something that is new and different. Maybe even mow down a big swath of the center of a great city, akin to Robert Moses and his engineers (bad) or
Haussmann in Paris (good). Maybe it's an architect, happening to be the flavor of the day, with a new architectural theory looking for a new place that it can physically manifest. Parametracism in Rome, for example. Certainly these great city-building imaginings have had their success stories; sometimes talent and execution overruns general thoughtlessness. After all, there still is a certain amount of craft and intelligence involved in any artistic undertaking or engineering endeavor.

However, a more thoughtful approach comes from the realization that the evidence of the various generations that have contributed to a site, or to a block, or a neighborhood gives a depth impossible to achieve in a project built on a greenfield or that obliterated what was originally there.

I don't have the precise rules on how to do this. I don't believe that you can write a code around using this process. Layering of the new over the old works best with the artistic sensibilities of the craftsperson. The craftsperson takes it all in, planning the new things that will be built, but utilizing and conspiring with the older construction that remains to enliven the end result. Of the layers of things that were built before, mixed in with the newly constructed, working with each other in a satisfying way. As a designer of buildings, I have been humbled by the constraints of needing to work with disparate things already in place, and been surprised by the rich and many tomes unexpected results of what came from what needed to be done.


Several years ago, my architectural colleagues and I embarked on a project to turn an automobile dealership into a lumber yard and building supply store for Ganahl Lumber. As the designer, in simple terms the task was to help the owner take an existing facility and make it into a place where they could sell building supplies. Ganahl's goal was to make this new store accessible and friendly to customers, different from a big-box warehouse store, or on the other hand, a traditional lumberyard. All and all not a scenario for vast amounts of designer's self-expression and the burnishing of egos.

An interesting thing came out as the design process progressed with the Owner and all of the consultants was the stories of buildings, environment and people revealed in the conversion of the automotive dealership into the lumberyard.

Some of the history was easily uncovered and understood as we started. A Chevrolet dealership was constructed in the early 1970s, conceived in the suburban retail model so popular at the time. The front of the store was rendered in kind of a contemporized version of Spanish Colonial architecture (seemingly suitable to the Pasadena California environment it was placed in), and the rest was a pragmatic arrangement of utilitarian buildings for service, parts, and car storage. As the years went by, and as the Chevrolet brand weakened in the Southern California marketplace, various additions and renovations occurred to cover other vehicle brands the dealer added to their repertoire. The ultimate addition was a swooped roof Hummer showroom, which added nothing to the dealership campus, but carried forth the strict corporate branding guidelines mandated to all of the franchises of that (briefly) highly profitable vehicle. That story ended with the collapse of the American automobile market, and the Owner's desire to cash out their interests.

The process revealed other stories. The building was constructed over a creek bed named the Eaton Wash, by means of a box culvert and a thick slab of pavement. The wash is part of the area's natural drainage and ecological system. Then there is the history of Colorado Boulevard within the City of Pasadena; there has been a desire within the eastern portion of the city where this site lies to make more of the boulevard promenade about it, and less of a nondescript suburban commercial slab. And this portion of Colorado was originally part of historic US Highway 66, with the implications of the roadside architecture linked to the dawning of coast-to-coast automobile traffic within the United States. Stories were beginning to come out of this project that could inform the design.

The Colorado Boulevard aspect demanded a design of the retail space that was open to the street, not a common configuration for the folks in the building supply business. But the notion of the broadly sheltered storefront, cleanly open to the street, was appropriate to the roadside architecture that is part of the Route 66 vocabulary. As much of the existing dealership building that could be reasonably used remained in place, modified accordingly to allow for open spaces. A set of design rules were devised to tie the miscellaneous structures together to make a cohesive whole; we allowed our better craftsperson natures to tell us what this place would be. All the stories of the site and the people building the project were thought through, and allowed to influence the project.

The results felt 'just right'. Although the ambition was not huge, and the design vocabulary was simple, the results were big. The store is a fun place to shop, with the building and signage conspiring with tools and building supplies themselves so the visitor can behold the 'construction gear' as a way of getting excited about their projects. The stories of the site are in plain view. All of the existing building structures are still recognizable by those familiar with the Chevrolet store. The new elements that help to sell the building supplies and to organize the various existing resources are the new story, are doing their perspective jobs, but they seem to do more then that. That stretch of Colorado Boulevard, that great outdoor room, takes on more of the processional quality implied with a boulevard. Interest and activity is on display for those who pass by and look, and it is starting to affect other buildings and projects being built in the immediate area. The project is a vindication of the crafted design approach.

Every district, neighborhood and street has a story to tell, or to be precise, a series of stories, added onto through time. Every building we build, every tree we plant, every street we pave adds to these stories, eventually making a great book. If one builds, while not cognizant of those stories, one nonetheless still adds to the book. But the results are harsh and dissonant; results that future generations of city builders will deal with.

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